Jean Thomas called him the “first primitive, unlettered Kentucky mountain minstrel to cross the sea to fiddle and sing his own and Elizabethan ballads in the Royal Albert Hall in London.” She presented to the American public a man she said spent his life in the mountains, never to come into contact with the modern world, still retaining vestiges of his English ancestry.
James W. Day (1861-1942), from Rowan County and Ashland KY, went by many names in his life… known in childhood as Willie, then later as “Blind Bill Day” because he was blind. He often went by J.W. Day as an early adult, but after he was ‘discovered’ by Jean Thomas, who became his agent, he became best known by his stage name of Jilson Setters, the Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow.
The left-handed Setters played his fiddle for many years in the American Folk Song Festival held in Ashland, composed tunes such as ‘The Rowan County Troubles,’ a popular local ballad, and recorded on the RCA Victor label in the late 1920s. He also recorded in the 1930s for folklorist John A. Lomax, whose collection is now in the Library of Congress.
In February 1930 Jean Thomas, who said she was a circuit court stenographer, wrote “Blind Jilson: The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” for American Magazine. The article describes how Thomas arranged for an operation that gave him sight, and how he appeared on a radio broadcast from New York City. It ends: “Jilson Setters, whose Elizabethan ballads broadcast over a hook-up from coast to coast and relayed half way around the world, delighted millions last night…Jilson Setters is a modern survival of the ancient minstrel. Who knows but that his primitive turnes have paved the way for American grand opera.”
In 1931 Thomas took Setters to London, where he performed in the Albert Hall at a folk song festival. On his return, Harvard professor George Lyman Kittering pronounced Setters’ composition “London Town” ‘a classic of American folk song.’ By 1934 Thomas was affecting Elizabethan garb, and Setters had become the featured performer at the National Song Festival organized by Thomas under the umbrella of her American Folk Song Society, which included on its board Carl Sandberg and Ida M. Tarbell.
Thomas had first asked another Kentucky fiddler, Ed Haley, to take on the persona of a character she was creating, Jilson Setters. When Haley refused, Thomas turned to J.W. Day. He wasn’t blind from birth as she’d said, but his sight had failed while he was young, and Thomas had arranged to have the cataracts removed from his eyes.
There’s no such place in Kentucky as Lost Hope Hollow. Day was an itinerant town beggar who made money not by performing ancient ballads, but by playing a mix of topical songs of his own composition. And Thomas was not a circuit court stenographer, but a Hollywood scenario writer—albeit an amateur folklorist.
Accompanied by songwriter/guitarist Carson Robison, Day recorded ten traditional songs for RCA Victor in NYC in February 1928 using the Setters name. But there is no record of him ever appearing on live country music shows, or performing with other authentic Kentucky musicians on the radio. Jean Thomas had him under contract and wanted him to be represented as an Elizabethan relic, so too much exposure might have threatened the careful image she had crafted.
Maybe folk music fans didn’t buy the image and therefore the records? Certainly Kentucky newspapers weren’t paying him much notice.
“When he arrived in Manhattan to sail his baggage consisted of one extra shirt, a quilt his grandmother had made, a gourd for a drinking cup, a corncob pipe and his fiddle wrapped in an oilcloth poke,” said TIME magazine. “He came, he said, from Lost Hope Hollow and he was going to see the King. Ashlanders have since said that there is no such place as Lost Hope Hollow, that Jilson Setters’ real name is William Day, and that he was never much of a mountaineer, but an oldtime beggar.”
So anxious were various forces in American society to find something that represented their vision of what was really American that Setters was heralded as the genuine article. Thus, William Wolff, in a 1939 article entitled “Songs that express the soul of a people” in the left-wing The People’s World, noted of Jilson Setters: “He has probably never heard of Marx or Lenin, but there can be no doubts about where his roots lay, as he sings.”
One of the things that seems to have really set people off in Kentucky about Jilson Setters, says genealogist Steve Green in a thread at Ancestry.com, was when Jean Thomas got carried away with her remarks in the early 1930s about how Jilson Setters (who was traveling with her at the time) was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to be back in his cabin in the Kentucky mountains to celebrate Old Christmas on January 6. Many people did not like her portrayal of eastern Kentucky as a backward place– for some reason, they felt that the references to Old Christmas were ludicrous and were harmful to the image of the region.
In a slew of letters to newspaper editors around the state, they fervently declared that people in Kentucky celebrated Christmas just as it was everywhere else, on December 25. What’s interesting is that most of the people who wrote in protest were unaware that there was in fact an “Old Christmas” that was indeed celebrated by some grassroots people. Nevertheless, the whole thing caused a brief public controversy, and along with Miss Thomas’ continual claims about the supposed Elizabethan ancestry of mountaineers, it generated quite a few skeptics.
Sources: Constructing Country: Fakery and “Strictly American” Music, by Kevin Yuill, Reconstruction 8.4, 2008
Old-time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, By Jeff Todd Titon
Creating Country Music, By Richard A. Peterson
Big Sandy, By Jean Thomas
Time magazine, Traipsin’ Woman, Monday, Jun. 18, 1934
Steve Green on Jilson Setters thread at Ancestry.com—
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